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From Spanish Flu to Covid-19: HIstory Repeating at the Meier House

11/11/2020
Monona, Iowa in the early 20th century

On November 11, 1918, a year and a day after the first residents of This American House moved into their new home, World War I officially ended. Two days later, schools and businesses in this small Iowa town emptied to greet ex-President William Howard Taft as his westward-bound train briefly stopped at the town depot, just two blocks from the Meier House. That same fall of 1918, the area was quarantined during a local outbreak of the international Spanish influenza epidemic. But by the following fall, after the “Home Coming” parade of its enlisted men became to date “the biggest event in the way of celebration ever held” in town, life moved on into the halcyon days the townspeople of Monona had enjoyed before the war.

Fast forward 102 years to today, November 11, 2020, and we eerily find history repeating itself – somewhat, anyway. America is hopefully about to emerge from a different sort of war, fought over the past four tumultuous years and capped off by a contentious election. A pandemic is raging, with quarantines becoming a surreal new way of life. Yet hope still prevails that by next fall, we too will be able to once again gather together in the streets, in restaurants and bars, in churches, and in our own homes. Until then, we’ll continue focusing on the greater good and making sure we’re keeping each other safe. 

garden, kitchen, recipes, small town life

Canning Summer: Raspberry Rhubarb Jam

07/16/2020
Black Raspberry Bush at This American House

One of the absolute joys of summer – even a summer that’s been disrupted by a global pandemic and crazy politics – is the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. A previous owner planted black raspberry bushes on the far side of the new garage at the Meier House. For the first few years of our ownership, we let these raspberry bushes go wild. And then every summer we’d pick a few raspberries and promise ourselves that one day we’d tame the bushes and get a proper harvest. Well, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and having a little more time on our hands, we’re finally keeping that promise.

Early this spring, when the raspberry bushes were just starting to sprout leaves, I donned my trusty garden gloves and grabbed the garden clippers, some twine and three long metal poles. I pushed the poles into the soil, one at each end of the bushes and one in the middle, and used them to string twine across the length of the bushes. I pruned the bushes and then used more twine to secure branches and try to create some order to the twisted vines. I had no idea whether this would provide a better raspberry harvest later in the summer, but it certainly made it easier to mow around the bushes.

Fresh raspberries floating in a bowl

Oh boy did it make a difference! Every day over the past two weeks we’ve been harvesting bowls full of the delicious little berries. At first we were eating them as fast as we could pick them. Raspberries in yogurt, raspberries smashed on toast, raspberries by the handful…! Raspberries!

After getting our fill of fresh berries, it was time to preserve. I considered freezing them but we wanted something that would last a little longer. You know, something that we could pop open on a winter day to get a little taste of summer. We bake a lot of breads, biscuits and muffins during the winter months so the answer seemed obvious – jam! And since we also have an abundance of rhubarb, I decided to combine two summer treats into one delicious jam.

We spent a Saturday afternoon making a raspberry rhubarb jam that will deliver a delicious taste of summer to those cold winter months. And, really, once you make homemade jam, you’ll never want to buy it again. Not only is homemade easy, it’s free of preservatives and oh so delicious. It’s really just a few simple ingredients: fruit, sugar, pectin and time.

Basically, all cooked jams are the same recipe:

Ingredients:
5 cups prepared fruit – in this case I used a mix of raspberries and rhubarb
1 box fruit pectin
1/2 tsp. butter or margarine
7 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl

Directions:
Mash the berries, chop the rhubarb and then combine. Add the fruit and pectin to a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Once the fruit mixture comes to a rolling boil, stir in all 7 cups of sugar. Continue cooking over high heat until it returns to full rolling boil. Boil for exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off any foam with a metal spoon and wham bam thank you jam!

Now that you have jam, it’s time to can. Place your jam in warm sterilized canning jars, place lids and caps on top and then process in a hot water canner to enjoy that summer feeling all year long. You’ll find instructions for canning on the Ball/Kerr website.

Jam on, friends!

history, small town life

The Meier House Has Known Quarantine Before

05/04/2020

Delbert and Grace Meier House - an American System-Built Home in Iowa

We, like much of the rest of the country, are sheltering in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As we go about our days trying to create normalcy out of an abnormal situation, we keep finding ourselves talking about how strange this all is, how it feels unreal to be living this experience. And then we’re reminded that this is not the first quarantine this house has known.

When Delbert and Grace Meier, along with their daughters Esther and Martha, moved into their newly constructed American System-Built Home in the fall of 1917, they were most likely filled with excitement. The family had been renting an apartment above Del’s office while the house was constructed so we can imagine that the three-bedroom single family home must have been a welcome change from the cramped quarters of that temporary lodging. Little did they know that they were about to spend an extended period of time getting acquainted with their new abode.

The flu outbreak of 1918 was the deadliest pandemic to hit America, infecting an estimated 500 millions and claiming the lives of over 600,000 Americans. The country, already gripped by its entrance into World War I, struggled to respond to the virus. Much like today, cities and communities disagreed on whether quarantining was necessary. Quite famously, the city of Philadelphia held a parade that set off a second wave of the virus that went on to claim some 15,000 lives. Still, other communities heeded health officials’ warnings and closed schools, movie theaters and other public gatherings to prevent the spread. (source)

Monona, Iowa, was one of the communities that took protective measures against the Spanish flu.Delbert likely closed his law office temporarily and the girls would have stayed home from school. And so we can imagine that the Meier family sheltered in place in their newly constructed home on Page Street … and somehow everyone managed to get through it.

If you think it’s hard to shelter in place in 2020, with our televisions and computers and internet and a whole world at our fingertips, can you imagine what it would have been like in 1918/1919? With many stores closed and even some mail service interrupted by the pandemic, the Meiers would have been limited to reading the books they had on hand and working on crafts and projects for which they had already purchased supplies. Whereas we receive up-to-the-minute updates from radio, television and streaming press conferences, news would have arrived slowly to this rural community via newspaper. That newspaper must have felt like a lifeline and as a welcome distraction during the quarantine.

All this is to say that we’ll get through this, too. This experience may feel strange and the world may not look the same on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could all be much, much worse. Medical advances of the past 100 years are helping to keep the death toll from spiking as high as it did during the Spanish flu pandemic. Global transportation networks are keeping us supplied with necessities even as much of society is shut down. But, most importantly, we could be dependent on early-20th century technology to get us through this quarantine.

Thank Gore for the internet!

cleaning, making do, small town life

Bovine Battle: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

04/21/2020
Springtime at the Meier House means stretching out the retractable clotheslines on the back of the new garage and drying our laundry with sunlight and fresh air. It’s kind of a yearly tradition here. Come late-March you’ll start seeing sheets, duvet covers, towels, curtains and other laundry flapping in the wind. After being cooped up in the stale indoor air all winter, there’s nothing more refreshing than laundry dried outdoors. It makes the laundry and, in the case of bedding, the entire room smell as fresh as a summer afternoon. Unless, that is, the farm across the street from our house is spreading manure. Suddenly, as we experienced over the weekend, that fresh air takes on a whole different fragrance. Did you know that a strong manure odor will transfer to laundry that’s drying on a clothesline? We certainly didn’t think it would! But we were wrong. The bedroom still smells like a summer afternoon … if you’re spending that afternoon standing in a cow pasture. Cows: 1, Misters: 0.
architecture, Famous Places, Prairie School

Alfred Bersbach House: Van Bergen’s Prairie Masterpiece

03/01/2020

Alfred Bersbach House - Wilmette, Illinois

We happened down a side street in Wilmette, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, today and came across this house that could very easily be mistaken for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. In fact, as we learned from our old friend Wikipedia, back in the 1950s and ’70s, real estate listings mistakenly attributed the house to Mr. Wright. It’s actually one of John S. Van Bergen‘s designs. Built in 1915 for Alfred Bersbach, it doesn’t get any more Prairie School than this lakefront estate!

Sadly, it looks like this gorgeous example of Prairie School design, a house that is often called John S. Van Bergen’s masterpiece, is about to see some big (and perhaps fatal!) changes. This big old house, as gorgeous as it is in its early-20th-century glory, is dwarfed by the modern McMansions around it. Judging by the demolition notice, we fear that the Bersbach house will soon be replaced with something far less significant.

This, we’re reminded, is the importance of stewardship. We don’t actually know that the Alfred Bersbach House is going to meet the wrecking ball, but we do know that too many houses of architectural significance do meet that fate.

Every now and then we wonder why we bought the Delbert and Grace Meier House. What compelled us to invest our energies (and money!) in a 100+ year old house?

This, ladies and gentlemen, this is why we became the stewards of the Meier House. Because we need more stewards. We need more love for old houses. We need more appreciation for the past. We need these houses to remain standing as a reminder of how we’ve lived, of who we’ve been.

Interestingly, there is a brick column near the property line that marks the location as a “Wilmette Local Landmark.” Here’s hoping that you’re getting a little refresh, Alfred Bersbach House, and not a full teardown. If not, at least we got to spend a little time with you today.